By Jim Saunders
With mass shootings refueling a national debate about gun laws, the Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments next week in a dispute about a 2011 state law that threatens stiff penalties if city and county officials pass gun-related regulations.
The case has drawn briefs from some of the biggest names on gun issues, such as the National Rifle Association and the Giffords and Brady gun-control groups.
At the heart of the case is Florida’s longstanding practice of establishing gun laws statewide — and what happens if cities and counties try to impose gun-related regulations.
More than 30 local governments and dozens of local officials, joined by Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, took the dispute to the Supreme Court last year after the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the law.
The Supreme Court in March scheduled oral arguments on June 9. The arguments will come in the aftermath of mass shootings at a Texas elementary school, a New York grocery store, and a California church that has again led to a massive debate about gun laws.
Since 1987, Florida has barred cities and counties from passing regulations that are stricter than state firearms laws, and the penalties in the 2011 law were designed to strengthen that “preemption.” The law, for example, could lead to local officials facing $5,000 fines for passing gun regulations.
The case does not challenge the underlying 1987 law but contends the penalties in the 2011 law are unconstitutional because they violate legal immunities for local officials and governments. Cities and counties challenged the 2011 law after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that killed 17 people.
In a February friend-of-the-court brief, the NRA said the law was needed as “local governments wish to continue imposing ordinances to unlawfully regulate the sale, possession, and use of firearms and ammunition.”
“The preemption statute’s penalty provisions are necessary to protect the fundamental right to keep and bear arms because they deter and remedy unlawful local government infringement against those rights,” the NRA, which lobbied for the law in 2011, said in the brief.
But in a November brief, attorneys for the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Giffords Law Center, Brady, and the Equality Florida Institute wrote that the law will “chill legitimate exercises of local legislative authority.”
“In sum, the NRA has presented no evidence of rogue local officials willfully violating state law or constitutional rights,” the groups’ brief said. “On the contrary, the NRA’s examples show local legislators working in good faith on solutions to difficult policy problems. The state’s and the NRA’s effort to punish local legislators for pursuing such solutions underscores the importance of legislative immunity.”
Attorneys for the local governments wrote in a 2019 court document that city and county officials had been urged to take actions after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Those requests involved such things as requiring procedures or documentation to ensure compliance with background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases and requiring reporting of failed background checks.
But the attorneys said local governments refrained from going ahead with the proposals because of the potential penalties in state law. Along with officials facing the possibility of fines and removal from office, the law would allow members of the public and organizations to receive damages and attorney fees if they successfully sue local governments for improper gun regulations.
The 1st District Court of Appeal rejected the local governments’ arguments about legal immunities for city and county officials.
“The Florida Legislature has the authority to abrogate legislative immunity,” Judge Susan Kelsey wrote in an April 2021 opinion joined by Judges Stephanie Ray and Brad Thomas. “It has done so here, because state preemption in this field necessarily and directly deprives local governments and agencies, and their officials, of any authority or discretion to contravene, exceed, or evade the Florida Legislature’s regulation of the entire field of firearms and ammunition. In this field, the Legislature has withdrawn all legislative authority from local governments and agencies to make policy decisions. No immunity can exist for local or agency enactment of provisions in violation of state preemption and thus beyond the scope of state-delegated authority.”
But in a March brief, attorneys for the local governments and Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, said the law violates the constitutional separation of powers because it opens the door to judges delving into the motives of local elected officials.
“The state’s argument (in favor of the law), if adopted, would undermine core principles of democracy,” the brief said. “The Florida Constitution and the separation of powers doctrine preclude the Legislature from expanding the judicial power in Florida to inquire into the motivations of local elected officials such officials simply because of how they voted on legislation that, at the time, had not yet been determined to be preempted.”
The Supreme Court case stems from three lawsuits that were consolidated in Leon County circuit court. The challenges were filed by cities and counties from various parts of the state, such as Tallahassee, Gainesville, Orlando, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami Beach.
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